Keith Allain wanted to be a world-beater from the start. During his first two stints as Team USA's junior coach, Allain had his squad psyched to skate from Day One.
Interestingly enough, that's probably not the best approach. No one wins the world junior championship in the first game. It's nearly a two-week road to the title, and Allain learned it's wise not to peak too soon. His U.S. teams finished fifth in 2001 and 2002.
"You learn something with every experience, specifically in those tournaments I was trying to be great for the opening night and I think other teams got better as the tournament went on," Allain said Sunday. "I've learned that you really have to progress as a hockey team each and every day."
Allain, then, wasn't expecting a gold-medal performance Sunday night when the Americans opened their 2011 tournament against Finland with a 3-2 overtime win. He walked into HSBC Arena expecting mistakes and growing pains, issues he wants to resolve as Team USA gets closer to what he hopes is a second straight title.
"It's not a process that's going to be over on Dec. 26," Allain said. "The real key to this tournament is to win games while you're improving as a team. That's what we're going to try to do."
The Americans were slow to start and didn't establish themselves until the Finns took a pair of penalties late in the first period. The second resulted in Justin Faulk's power-play goal with 1:06 remaining.
The U.S. team showed resiliency in the second period, a trait that will help during wild games later in the tourney. Jason Zucker scored just 78 seconds after Finland tied the game, ending a short-lived tie created when the Americans committed two turnovers behind their net.
The Finns continued their steady puck control and tied the game again with 7:01 left in the third. Faulk blocked a shot by Erik Haula, who continued the rush and took another shot. Goaltender Jack Campbell's rebound went to driving Iiro Pakarinen for the goal.
Nick Bjugstad allowed the Americans to avoid the upset with the winner with 1:52 left in overtime. He picked up a loose puck that struck the foot of a changing Finn and took a slap shot from the left circle that eluded Joni Ortio.
The Americans are favored to repeat and have embraced that status. Allain, though, is continuing his "keep building" approach and wouldn't think of saying this year's squad is as good as the one that claimed gold last tournament.
"I wouldn't say that today," he said. "I think we'll find out. That's what the tournament is for. I think that we've got a number of days here where we've got to get better, get better as a hockey team. If we meet the challenges in the tournament the way the team did last year, then maybe we can discuss that."
Allain has quickly established a no-nonsense persona this tournament. The Yale coach is said to make practices at his university enjoyable events, but he also makes it clear what he expects. It's working at Yale, which is the NCAA's No. 1-ranked team, and Team USA hopes it works in Buffalo.
"He kind of shows if you're not going to play hard, you're not going to play at all," U.S. forward Jerry D'Amigo said. "You need that as a coach to kind of instill that in some of the guys."
Allain entered Sunday's game as the U.S. coach with the best winning percentage in world junior competition. He was 9-3-2 during his first two stints. When USA Hockey approached him for a third term following Dean Blais' title run, he quickly said yes.
"The honor of representing your country in international competition is absolutely unbelievable," he said.
"The fact that they'd ask you is very, very humbling. To me it's almost like an extended coaching clinic. You have high-level players, you're surrounded by other high-level coaches. You get to watch their games. There's actually no downside, that's for sure."
Allain hopes the experience and his team's play continue to go up.